As a young man, the Triestine novelist Italo Svevo’s favorite author was Schopenhauer. “The whole of Svevo’s life shows traces of the deep impression left on his mind by 'the philosopher of pessimism,'” writes John Gatt-Rutter, in his recent, carefully researched, and richly detailed biography of Svevo1, “but his application of Schopenhauer was not the usual one.” A good thing, too, for it was Schopenhauer who wrote that we must “regard man first and foremost as a being who exists only as a consequence of his culpability and whose life is an expiation of the crime of being born.” It was Schopenhauer, again, who set out the bleak terms under which, in his view, we all play the hopeless game of life:

The vanity of...


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